Who was tugging whom at the Rooster Bridge near Demopolis, Alabama?
By Tim Clark — June 2002
When these photos surfaced on the Internet a few months ago with no accompanying account of the astonishing stunt they depict, Web surfers coast to coast--including a few here at PMY--were hungry to learn just what had transpired. After some determined desktop sleuthing, we were led to the Linden, Alabama, Democrat-Reporter, which originally published the photos in April 1979, just a few days after they were shot. According to Democrat-Reporter editor Goodloe Sutton, Charles Barger, a Mississippi-based Marengo County native visiting the area with his two daughters, shot the sequence as he waited outside his car before the drawn Demopolis Rooster Bridge. After a particularly wet spring, the Tombigbee River was up to record flood level. Barger saw the tug Cahaba approaching with loaded barges and had his camera at the ready.
Sutton also steered us to an account of the incident posted on the Web by Capt. Michael L. Smith, who had passed through the bridge--conventionally--15 minutes before the Cahaba, on the tug James E. Philpott. Smith says that the swollen state of the river made it necessary to send the tug's load of barges under a section of the bridge where the flow was not quite as swift and the span between supports wider. According to this practice, which was not unusual in the circumstances, the tug would back up after releasing the barges and motor over to the bridge opening, pass through, catch up to her load, and continue on.
But the severity of the spring flood unfortunately got the best of the late Capt. Jimmie Wilkerson, the veteran tug skipper at the controls of the Cahaba that day. "Captain Jim was a fine pilot," writes Smith, "but he made a small mistake, and his stern was caught in the current, twisted sideways, and the river smashed him into the bridge sideways." Smith attributes the tug's incredible recovery on the downriver side to the huge amount of cement ballast routinely carried by Warrior Gulf Navigation vessels, of which the Cahaba was one. No one was seriously injured (the crew waited safely on the barges while Wilkerson maneuvered the tug), the Cahaba kept one engine firing, and the barges were eventually brought under control and moored against the river bank.
Our conclusion? The next time you have one of those days on the ICW when you feel you just don't have the patience to wait for another bridge to open, don't try this.
This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.